The last dance: clubbing in the coronavirus crisis

With nightclubs such as Fabric and Ministry of Sound closing their doors because of coronavirus, the Bang Face festival was the last chance for Britons to rave for some time

Bang Face, a dance music festival held at Southport holiday park Pontins, is known for a particularly hell-for-leather approach to jackhammering dance music, gallows humour and airborne inflatables. Held over the weekend before Downing Street decided to advise against all gatherings of this kind, it will likely be the last major dance music event in the UK for some time. Nightclubs including London’s Fabric and Ministry of Sound announced its temporary closure yesterday, and festivals such as Re-Textured have been cancelled.

Jokes circulated in the run-up to Bang Face about the irony that rave duo Altern-8, the weekender’s de facto house band, are not only known for wearing boilersuits and face masks, but would be playing mostly hits from their 1992 album Full On … Mask Hysteria, casting them as unlikely oracles. The festival was set to be something of a pre-apocalyptic knees-up.

But eyes were on the outcome of Thursday’s Cobra meeting and a ruling on the status of mass gatherings. The UK opted to keep calm and carry on, so Bang Face went ahead, with strains of full-strength bassline and donk kicking off just two hours after Boris Johnson’s press conference finished. That evening, Glastonbury announced its 2020 lineup. Rock and dance gigs up and down the country, ranging from club basements to sporting arenas, were due to plough ahead – and did.

Unlikely oracles ... Altern-8 in 1990.
Unlikely oracles ... Altern-8 in 1990. Photograph: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the situation evolved at pace. Europe began a self-enforced shutdown. The UK government hinted at a U-turn in the days ahead. Managers scrambled to get their artists home from DJ tours before borders were locked down. Bang Face reacted on the ground: surplus hand washing stations were set up, staff wore gloves and stocked free soap by the tills, and the in-house TV station was used to display cancellation messages. Some artists were unable to travel, some stayed away of their own volition.

As the urgency of social distancing took hold, the tenor of online conversations in music circles darkened: if an industry as typically bloated as football could unilaterally hit the pause button, shouldn’t live music? The nature of having fun to thunderously loud acid techno felt increasingly like being a scab crossing the picket line.

Bang Face organisers have defended their decision to let the show go on, with the same reasoning other venues and touring artists facing flak have used: the government said it was OK. A statement from the festival’s management reads: “We took the decision to go ahead with the event in line with government guidelines and have been closely monitoring the situation while taking professional advice to ensure safety and minimise impact on local services.”

They were left with an unenviable decision to mitigate in real time. Do you risk asymptomatic people spreading the virus? Do you send workers home, from performing artists to lighting technicians to security to bar staff, who might desperately rely on that last paycheck before work in events is vaporised? With insurance policies unclear on cancellation policy due to Covid-19, and no emergency fund from the government in place for nightlife industries, a string of bankruptcies are a very real possibility, too – although this was looked upon dimly by European counterparts who enacted compulsory closure much sooner.

The crowd at Bang Face weekender.
A pre-apocalyptic knees-up ... the crowd at Bang Face weekender. Photograph: Bang Face

This nightmare scenario has played out for innumerable people in the music business over the past few days. Ash Lauryn, an Atlanta-based, Detroit-rooted promoter and radio host, was caught in limbo at the outset of an extensive European tour. “When I left the US on 11 March, all of my gigs in Europe were still scheduled to move forward,” the DJ said. “Within 24 hours of arriving in Berlin, cancellations started to come in. By the end of the week, everything on my Europe tour was cancelled, including some additional US gigs scheduled in April.” She felt sombre, if not shortchanged: “I know I’m not alone in this. That helps.”

Karl Fuller is a programmer at Tottenham venue Five Miles, who are today calling off all events for the foreseeable future. He says that Five Miles will be unable to survive financially for more than a few weekends with doors shut – and that his job, and those of his colleagues, is inevitably on the line. He has been encouraged by an unforeseen spike in resource pooling and solidarity among competitors in London’s club scene. “The electronic music community is a beautiful thing when it wants to be,” Fuller says. “It really gets behind causes, such as the license threat recently posed to [Canning Town nightclub] Fold. I’m hopeful that all of us in smaller, independent entities that don’t have the backing or infrastructure in place for a situation such as this are appreciated, and people come out in support when our backs are really against the wall.” Although, he added, “it is a very complicated situation that no one has any concrete answers for.”

Public support is one thing, but when the UK government gives the all-clear to run events of a certain size again, will ticket sales resume? Will there have been sufficient business relief that any venues will even exist to do so? The opacity of Johnson’s follow-up statement on Monday evening, which did not give an order for venues to close but asked the public to take the initiative to stay away, added further confusion.

For all the hopeful talk about models of interdependency, the coronavirus crisis has exposed the precariousness of a model that relies heavily on people getting together for a good time, and the lack of a safety net for the vast majority who work in it. The events industry, and music at large, has entered a liminal state in which no one knows when things will return to normal – or if they will at all.


Gabriel Szatan

The GuardianTramp

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